Pumpkins are an undeniable symbol of the changing seasons in the Northeastern United States. Pumpkins are an annual fruit in the genus Cucurbita, along with butternut squash, zucchini and cucumbers.
What’s the Difference Between a Pumpkin, Winter Squash and Gourd?
Pumpkins, winter squash and gourds are all fruit of the same genus, Cucurbita. Botanically speaking, there isn’t much difference between them. However, there is a significant difference in pumpkins, squash and gourds that have been bred for ornamental or edible purposes. A jack-o-lantern-style pumpkin would be tasteless and disappointing to eat. But a pie pumpkin would be sweet and delicious, much more like butternut squash. Edible pumpkins and squash can be unique decorations that can later be eaten. Look for delicious and beautiful varieties like Blue Hubbard, Autumn Frost, and Long Island Cheese to make your autumn decor do double duty.
History and Facts
Archeologists have traced pumpkins back to Central America, where it is thought that they originated. The oldest domesticated pumpkin seeds were found in Mexico and are estimated to be from around 7500-5550 BCE.
The Haudenosaunee (known as Iroquois) people have been growing pumpkins and winter squash in Upstate and Central New York for thousands of years. Valued for their long storage and nutrition they provide during the cold North Country winters. It has traditionally been grown as part of Three Sisters Gardens. Which is a growing method developed and used by the Haudenosaunee people where corn, beans, and squash are grown together to provide each other with structural support, nutrients, weed suppression, and water conservation. Winter squash was used alongside her other two sisters, beans and corn, by the Haudenosaunee in many ways. One example is squash in a cooked corn stew flavored with wild edible plants and game like venison or beaver.
Winter squash continued to be a valuable sustenance crop for European colonists and early homesteaders in the Northeast. It was commonly mashed and eaten on its own, or incorporated into other dishes. You can see heirloom varieties of winter squash growing in the King’s Garden at the Historic Fort Ticonderoga. Some recognizable varieties of winter squash grown in the region throughout history are the Boston Marrow, Hubbard, and Turban squash.
Today most of the world’s pumpkins are grown in China, India and Ukraine. In the US, most pumpkins are grown in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. Nestlé’s pureed pumpkin brand “Libby’s” is primarily grown and processed in Illinois, and then shipped across the country.
While pumpkins and winter squash are eaten across the globe, canned pumpkin is really just an American and Canadian thing. You can’t easily find canned pumpkin abroad. According to a 2018 study, the top reported consumers of pumpkin consumption per capita are Ukraine, Iran and Russia, where pumpkin is used whole in dishes like Ghalieh Kadoo an Iranian pumpkin stew with carrot, parsley and cilantro and Varenyky with Pumpkin, a variety of a Ukrainian dumpling filled with roasted pumpkin mash and spices.
How Pumpkins Are Grown
In the Adirondacks, most farmers start their pumpkin (and other winter squash) plants in a greenhouse in the spring. The plants are transplanted out into the field later in the season, close to the beginning of June, once the soil temperatures have warmed up. Pumpkins can also be planted by direct seed. Pumpkins are especially susceptible to cucumber beetles, squash bugs, bacterial wilt, and powdery mildew. Because of this, conventional pumpkins and winter squash grown on a large scale use pesticides and fungicides to manage pests and diseases.
Once pumpkins have fully ripened, farmers cut or pull the fruits from the vine and harvest the fruit for storage or sale. The pumpkins are then “cured” or stored in a warm greenhouse or barn, to allow the rind to harden and the flesh to get sweeter. Local pumpkins start to become available for purchase around September and remain available through the winter in the Adirondack region.
Why Local Pumpkins?
Unlike red peppers, watermelon, and eggplant- pumpkins can grow anywhere in the Adirondack region with relative ease. They don’t require a lot of inputs or care and can be stored all winter long without the use of refrigeration or processing. That being said, the average commercial jack-o-lantern pumpkin weighs between 10-20 lbs. It is an incredibly resource-intensive process to ship literal tons of pumpkins from the midwest and California to the Northeast just for an inexpensive fall decoration that gets tossed in the compost after a few weeks. While the price per pound for a local organic pumpkin or squash might be higher than the box store carving pumpkins, if you buy one of the many beautiful varieties of pumpkins that are both edible and decorative, you can actually save money by using the pumpkin as a decoration, then making a meal out of it.
Photo from the New York Times Winter Squash Variety Guide
How to Store and Cook With Whole Pumpkins
Pumpkins that are cured and stored properly can stay fresh in storage for up to a year. All varieties of winter squash and pumpkins make beautiful fall decorations. Look for the “jack-o-lantern” type for carving and painting. When buying local pumpkins or winter squash for eating, look for varieties that are specifically meant to be eaten- like little “pie” pumpkins. The best way to know if what you’re getting is a delicious edible variety is to ask your farmer!
There are several ways to cook a whole pumpkin, it really comes down to the tools you have easily accessible in your kitchen and personal preference. Most of what is sold as canned pumpkin puree is actually primarily butternut squash. So don’t be afraid to mix different types of winter squash that you have on hand into your “pumpkin” mixture.
- The simplest method would be to cut the pumpkin in half and scoop out the seeds. Place face down in a baking dish or rimmed cookie sheet. Roast them at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes- or until the flesh is soft. Let them cool and scoop the pumpkin out of the skin.
- Another similar method is to poke a few holes in the pumpkin and place the entire intact pumpkin on a baking dish or rimmed cookie sheet. Cook in the oven at 350 degrees for about an hour or until its flesh is soft to the touch. Baking time will vary significantly depending on the size of the fruit. Let cool and slice in half, scoop out seeds, and scoop the flesh out of the skin.
- If you’re making a dish that requires whole pieces of pumpkin, peel and de-seed it like you would any other winter squash, and cube the flesh.
If you are looking for a canned pumpkin puree replacement- simply mash your cooked pumpkin flesh with a fork, potato masher, or food processor to create your desired consistency.
Recipes to Enjoy Local Pumpkins
A few (not pie!) recipes to inspire you to eat more local pumpkin:
- Pumpkin Coconut Curry
- Pumpkin Pie Smoothie
- Pumpkin Alfredo with Ricotta Stuffed Shells
- (From the Almanack archive: Pumpkin chocolate chip cookies)
Where to Buy Local Pumpkins
Pumpkins and winter squash can be found at Adirondack Harvest member businesses across the region right now. Find local pumpkins by browsing the map of farms and retail locations at: adirondackharvest.com/browse
Have you ever cooked and eaten a whole pumpkin? Comment and let us know below!
Photo at top: Pumpkins at the Harris Family Farmstand in Westport, NY